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A Bubble In Search of a Pin

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Should Greenspan, Bernanke, and the entire Fed have seen it coming?

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Should Greenspan and Bernanke have seen the bubble in housing and other assets and acted, or should we accept their defense that you can't know whether there's a bubble until after the fact? We'll look at research that suggests they should have known, and at the least, policy makers should no longer be allowed to say, "How could I have known?"

Of course, the employment numbers came out Feb. 5, and the results were mixed; but that's better than they've been for the past two years. We dig into the numbers to see what they're really saying. And finally, we examine why the markets are so volatile. Is it just Greece, or is there more? There's a lot of very interesting, and important, material to cover.

Unemployment Numbers: A Mixed Bag

January employment numbers are characteristically volatile, as the birth/death ratio numbers are typically the largest of the year. This month, the birth/death model subtracted (rather than added) 427,000 jobs (yes, I wrote that correctly). This is a very large "adjustment" month, and the volatility gets smoothed over in the seasonal adjustments. It's part and parcel of the process, as making estimates about how many new businesses are formed or die is extraordinarily difficult at turning points in the economy.

As an acknowledgment of that, the employment level for March 2009 was revised down by 930,000 jobs, and by December it was a total of almost 1.4 million extra jobs lost. That means that the Bureau of Labor Statistics overestimated the number of new jobs significantly. December's job loss was really 150,000, not the 85,000 originally reported. How would the markets have reacted to a number that large?

January saw a slightly larger than estimated loss of 22,000 jobs, which would have been 53,000 without new federal employees, 9,000 of whom were hired to perform the census. (By the way, federal employment is absolutely exploding!)

Now, the somewhat good news. I've been writing about how the household survey has been much weaker for almost two years than the establishment survey. For instance, the total number of unemployed rose by 589,000 in December, while the number of people not classified as looking for work rose by 843,000. No matter how you spin it, those were very ugly numbers.

This month the household survey showed the largest one-month turnaround that I could find. As The Liscio Report noted:

Adjusting for the changes in the population controls, total household employment rose by 784,000 -- and when further adjusted to match the payroll concept, employment was up 841,000. Moves of this magnitude (regardless of sign) are unusual, but not unknown -- and frequently undone in subsequent months. The less volatile ratios were also up, with the participation rate up 0.1 point, and the employment/population ratio rose a nice 0.2 point, its first increase since last April. While it's too early to say whether this strength in the household survey is a harbinger of an upturn that will soon show up in payrolls, it's something to be filed under "tentatively encouraging."

No positions in stocks mentioned.

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